The Great Gatsby (2013) – Movie Review


Because every American classic novel needs to be turned into a modern movie, here comes Baz Luhrmann’s take on F. Scott Fitzgerlad’s The Great Gatsby in a polarizing effort to say the least.

For the novel’s traditional fans, Lurhmann’s version is too all over the place. For the modernists, it’s an interesting take on the classic. The truth is Lurhamnn’s version exists in some form of limbo between the two.

The Great Gatsby is the story of Jay Gatsby (Leo Dicaprio) who moves to West Egg in Long Island and becomes quickly known for his extravagant lifestyle, which attracts the attention of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) who is sought out by Gatsby in order for the latter to get closer to Carraway’s cousin Daizy (Carey Mulligan) with whom he has a past.

Lurhamnn’s take on The Great Gatsby is uneven at best. The movie’s opening act is chaotic to say the least: from sweeping camera movement that are repeated more than once in a single scene, to a story that doesn’t seem to know how to get developed, to blitz and glitz that doesn’t seem to find a limit.
However, once the director and the movie start to find their footing – especially as chips start falling into place – The Great Gatsby becomes an enjoyable experience that manages to hook you in. That’s if you can get past the fabulousness-theme of the first act without nodding off.

Bolstered by excellent performances by Leo Dicaprio and Carey Mulligan, as well as Tobey Maguire, the movie’s characters are always interesting to watch especially when they interact. Dicaprio’s portrayal of the infinitely eccentric and optimistic Gatsby is spot-on. Tobey Maguire’s transition as the wannabe writer getting used to a life of excess is interesting and Carey Mulligan as the woman torn between the life she has and the life she could have is excellent.

The music of The Great Gatsby, however, doesn’t work. Of course, Florence + The Machine’s song is excellent and Lana Del Rey’s melodrama works here. But why would a movie about the jazz era open up with Jay-Z whose only similarity with the movie is probably his name?
The soundtrack, which plays throughout the movie, serves more as a vehicle for its corresponding singers rather than to bolster the cinematic experience of the movie it’s supposed to support.

The Great Gatsby is one of Baz Lurhmann’s better movies. Despite it being uneven and all over the place sometimes, it remains entertaining enough to pass despite it feeling too lush and shallow and superficial at points. For those who find this novel to be American literature’s most prized jewel, Lurhamnn’s version is an abomination. But if you’re willing to get past that, there’s no reason not to enjoy Gatsby when it allows you to.


The Lebanese Rocket Society (Documentary) – Review

The Lebanese Rocket Society

Brought to us by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, The Lebanese Rocket Society is a documentary about a phase of Lebanese history that exists between both of our civil wars, from 1960 to approximately 1966, in which a group of Lebanese students at Haigazian University launched rockets as part of a series of scientific experiments.

The above is not science fiction, as I had thought on many occasions when many blogs and newspapers wrote about the society over the past few months, despite it being quite difficult to believe given where we are technologically in Lebanon today.

The Lebanese Rocket Society‘s premise is bittersweet. For its main purpose, it makes you proud that these students not only decided to build a rocket, but also chemically made the fuel the rocket is supposed to use because only superpowers possessed it and were not going to dispense quantities of it to Lebanon. The students even built the radar sensors that they equipped the rockets with after a brief miscalculation which sparked a UN-debaccle with our neighboring Cyprus. Yes, we haven’t been nice neighbors all the time apparently. The Lebanese Army eventually helped them in their scientific experiments for the students were heading into financial difficulties with their ambition growing bigger.

The mere fact that the Cedar-named rockets were all built from scratch is a testament to the ingenuity and the creativity of these young Lebanese students. Too bad such advances are purely science fiction not because such brains are lacking but because of our country’s circumstances.

The most interesting parts in the documentary were, without a doubt, the sections where real-life footage from the many launches that took place were incorporated. The archive is unimaginably great and seeing it is worth the price of admission alone. It’s always interesting to dig up 20th-century material about Lebanon that is not of tanks bombing buildings and of a torn-out Holiday Inn hotel.

The documentary seeks out Manoug Manougian, the student who started it all, currently a math professor at a university in Florida. Manougian shares the archive he kept of what he calls one his life’s proudest moments. You can check out his personal page here.

The directors also find Harry Koundakjian, the photographer who documented the Lebanese Rocket Society’s experiments, as well as former Haigazian president John Markarian. However, even though the other participants in the society’s experiments are mentioned, nothing is said about them nor are they mentioned again beyond the movie’s opening scene, which I thought did their work a disservice.

Moreover, The Lebanese Rocket Society goes off-topic often, notably with an entire sequence about the importance of the Arab Spring, as well as many other political subtle messages passed on notably about the importance of the Arab unity under Abdel Nasser. I still have no idea how the entire documentary’s premise fits in the mood of revolutions and freedom and whatnot spreading across Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria but the notion is present.

I also felt it was very misleading that – despite their army source telling them the army had a panel discussing the possibility of turning the rockets into weapons by having one floor of the rocket filled with bombs – the directors were adamant that these rockets were a scientific experiment and build the entire documentary on that premise. It was quite clear that the rockets couldn’t have been possibly done if the army hadn’t helped and if the army wanted to make weapons out of them, they would have been turned into weapons.

The Lebanese Rocket Society ends with a 10 minute or so animated sequence which asks the question: what if Lebanon hadn’t stopped the rocket experiment?

To answer the question, the directors believe we would have a metro network running under Beirut, oil rigs off our shores, an entire space program rivaling that of the U.S.A. (down to basically ripping off Nasa’s logo), etc.

The sequence, in my opinion, did the movie a grave injustice and it shouldn’t have been included at all. It was already established that the rocket experiment was stopped because Lebanon was asked to by higher authorities in countries North, South, West and East. One of the documentary’s strongest scenes was one where a drafting compass drew a circle from Lebanon to where our rocket would have reached. Sinai was accessible. It was already established as well that the rockets were not, eventually, a mere scientific experiment as the students involved kept repeating. Those students didn’t know any better, obviously, but the army did. How does that set up for a future as bright as the one they tried to portray?

Nothing is better than some Lebanese future pick-me-up every once in a while, but at least don’t have it that separate from all the facts the documentary had presented over the course of the previous 80 minutes, especially that the presentation of those scientific facts was very systematic and documented.

I personally recommend people watch The Lebanese Rocket Society when it’s released in cinemas on April 11th despite its shortcomings because it is a documentary that showcases a different side of the Lebanon that we thought we knew, one that has been erased from the collective memory of the country as a whole – all supported by some old footage that will leave you baffled.


Beautiful Creatures [2013] – Movie Review

Beautiful Creatures Movie Poster

You know things are odd when you’ve read the book upon which a movie is based and the movie still manages to surprise you. I don’t mean this in a good way.

Having nothing better to do a few weeks back, and knowing this would be released, I decided to read the novel Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, the first in the Caster series. I thought the book was decent enough but figured the movie would be much better as the content is made to be translated to the big screen.

To say I was mistaken would be an understatement and I’m not sure if it’s only because the movie has absolutely nothing to do with the book, except for about 20 minutes which are spread out here and there over a two hour running time.

Lena Duchannes is a newcomer to the town of Gatlin, in the deep American South. She lives in Ravenwood manor, a place that the townspeople don’t look favorably upon nor upon its inhabitant, a man they hadn’t seen in years. When you’re that deep in the Bible Belt, the only thing people accept is Jesus and Republicans. If you deviate from that, then you’re the devil. Trying to fit in high school is some tough business for Lena who finds comfort in Ethan Wate, a boy whom she intrigues. He discovers that Lena is a caster (a fancy word for witch) and that female casters in her family are claimed to either the dark of the light when they turn 16 – and Lena doesn’t have much time left until her birthday.

The movie features an interesting cast that comprises of Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson and Viola Davis. Frankly, I have no idea what they were thinking in signing up to this. Not only is Beautiful Creatures not entertaining, it is an atrocity of monstrous proportions. Nothing in the movie works. The three aforementioned actors come off as amateurs who had never done a movie before. The special effects are cheap. The few moments of snarky dialogue at the beginning are nowhere near enough to make you look favorably at the hours that followed.

If you have read and liked the book, steer clear from this. If you have nothing to do during two hours of your life, steer clear from this. My guess is Beautiful Creatures did such a bad job at turning the book upon which it’s based into a movie that the upcoming parts in the series will never see the light of the day. Good.


Les Misérables [2012] – Movie Review


As a person who grew up and went through a French curriculum with Victor Hugo’s novel as its centerpiece at many points, I’ve grown attached to the essence of the novel. I’ve also grown to understand it, know what it contains, understand the message that Hugo wanted to pass on. I’d even joke and say the novel’s impressive spine is a byproduct of Hugo being French – a lot of blabbing for nothing. I’ve taken some of that, as is evident by my wordy blogposts at times. This review will surely turn into one so just skip to the last paragraph if you don’t feel like reading.

My knowledge of Victor Hugo’s most famous 1500-pages novel has led me to conclude that it’s very difficult to turn it into a motion picture. If the previous attempts at this novel weren’t enough proof, Tom Hooper’s take on Les Misérables adds to the growing list of not-nearly-there trials.

The story is known for everyone by now. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a French man living around the time of the French revolution and is forced to steal a loaf of bread to save a relative’s life. He is subsequently thrown in jail for 19 years at the end of which he’s released on parole. Valjean, however, breaks his parole and ends up making a decent life for himself as the mayor of a small French town in Northern France called Montreuil-sur-Mer. But Javert (Russell Crowe), the prison warden who was in charge of Valjean, appears back in his life during a visit to the factory run by Valjean, now working under a new name. In that factory works a single mother called Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who gets sacked from her job when her secret of having had a child out of wedlock, Cosette (eventually played by Amanda Seyfried), is discovered. Fantine eventually succumbs to becoming a prostitute and is saved by Valjean who promises to take care of her daughter as he runs away from Javert who’d do anything to catch him, to the backdrop of a growing revolution in the streets of the French youth.

Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is a full-blown musical. No, it’s not a musical in the sense of a talking movie with a few songs interspersed here and there. It’s a musical in the sense of three hours non-stop singing where even “thank you”s are sung, where reading letters becomes melodic and where, if you’re not a fan of musicals to begin with or not entirely sure what you’re getting yourself into, you’d end up wanting to pull your own hair out. Yes, this version of Les Misérables is definitely not for everyone. Even if you love – scratch that – adore music, Les Misérables might prove a very tough pill to swallow. And at times it really, really is.

Hugh Jackman, who can sing, ends up grating around the 120th minute mark. Russell Crowe on the other hand entirely sheds his Gladiator image for a singing Javert and with his not-so-pleasant singing voice ends up entirely intolerable a few minutes in. Russell Crowe even looks entirely uncomfortable to be there and it reflects on his character, making Javert – a central figure to the story – comical at times. Hugh Jackman has to be commanded for a job well done as Valjean. Few actors can say they can deliver performances as he did with the close-ups he got throughout the movie.

In fact, the actors and actresses in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables all performed their songs in the movie live. While a piano played in the background to guide them, they acted their songs instead of recording them months in advance and eventually lip-synching them to film.

The single acting performance in the movie that will absolutely blow your socks off is Anne Hathaway, who’s probably aided by the fact that her character isn’t there for long. Hathaway, as Fantine, is brilliant. She deserves all the praise she’s been getting. Her performance of the Susan-Boyle-made-famous song “I Dreamed A Dream” is gut-wrenchingly stunning. She brings the life into her character and gives Fantine a richness which other actors in this movie with more running time couldn’t bestow upon theirs. Hathaway steals every scene she’s in and ends up being the only reason you might walk out of this movie feeling like you hadn’t wasted three hours of your live. Just to watch her do what she does so beautifully. No one is raining on Hathaway’s parade come Award-season time.

Interesting casting choice include Samantha Barks as Eponine, the daughter of the Thénardiers, played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen whose only purpose was to add some comic relief to some tense moments. Barks sings her songs really well and gets you to relate to her character, despite the background. She delivers a nice rendition of “On My Own.”

Les Misérables does have its strong moments, notably the opening scene, Hathaway’s minutes and the ending, but the movie accumulates a lot of off-moments as well that make the result very lopsided. The movie is also extremely long. Thirty minutes (of wailing – singing) could have easily been cut with the story not be affected because few of those songs tell us more about the character and its story, an example being I Dreamed A Dream in which Fantine tells the story of how she reached the misery she was in. The overall result is a movie that feels very in limbo: okay, not great, this is awesome, this is horrible, goosebumps, kill me now. These are all things you will feel while watching Les Misérables.

3.5/5 – – new rating system.

Argo – Movie Review

Argo, based on a real story, is set in 1979 Iran, after the Islamic revolution at the heart of the American hostage crisis of the Carter era. 6 Americans were able to escape the confines of the embassy as it was overtaken, seeking shelter with the Canadian ambassador who harbors them as they wait inside the four walls of his house for salvation and for a rescue that never seems to come.

69 days after the American embassy in Iran events, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a CIA agent, is called in to a secret meeting to discuss possible rescue scenarios for those 6 Americans who are at the most immediate danger with them being as exposed as they are. Mendez comes up with the ingenious idea of orchestrating a fake movie, with the help of John Chambers (John Goodman), a Hollywood make-up artist, who brings a producer to the team in order to get the plan going. And Argo is set in motion.

One of the most intense thrillers you will watch, Argo keeps you glued to your seat for the entirety of its two hour run. The intermingling of historical footage with the movie’s lead-in scenes immediately draw you in. The movie has a dark tone throughout, one that doesn’t let down – even with the many comic moments that are there to lighten the mood in stark contrast to the overall grim setting of the time during which the events take place.

Ben Affleck delivers his best movie yet as a director and with a list of movies that have all been well-done, his talent as a filmmaker is beginning to surpass that of him as an actor even though he also delivers a decent performance here. The comic relief I mentioned earlier is provided by good old John Goodman and Alan Arkin as a couple of movie-makers who are quirky and fun. The trio, Affleck included, also deliver subtle criticism at a movie industry which chases blockbuster flicks and leaves those which advance the art of filmmaking behind.

Argo brings life to a Tehran ravaged by the revolution of the 1970s. It showcases the morbid atmosphere, the oppression and the desperation present everywhere in Iran at the time. It gets your feelings regarding the country, whether positive or negative, to the surface. It doesn’t shy away from historical accuracy, even if it involves showcasing American shortcomings. It doesn’t shy away from showing all the help that America’s neighbors to the North provided, proving insurmountable to the rescue efforts. And as one of its final scenes, involving an airport, sets in, you are so taken in you can barely breathe. You feel for the characters on screen. You may already know the resolution but you can’t not be afraid for them. And if you’re not, then the only thing I have to say to you is: Argo!@#$ yourself.